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Using VR to Revolutionize STEM Learning


Doctor wearing VR headset.

Imagine a classroom where students aren't just memorizing formulas or flipping through textbooks. Instead, they're dissecting a virtual frog, exploring the surface of Mars, or designing a bridge that can withstand a virtual earthquake. This isn't science fiction – it's the exciting world of Virtual Reality. 

For STEM teachers, keeping students engaged and comprehending complex concepts can be a constant battle. Traditional methods often struggle to capture students’ attention and lack bridging textbook-concepts to real-world applications. However, Virtual Reality (VR) is emerging as a game-changer, offering a solution to these challenges and igniting a passion for STEM in a whole new generation. 


A recent study published in Frontiers in Education explores the idea that Virtual Reality encourages student engagement and deepens students’ understandings of complex concepts. The study considers the impact VR has on first-year engineering students, specifically on their understanding of three-dimensional vectors. The research suggests that VR significantly enhances students' understanding of vectors when compared to traditional methods. 


The study involved dividing 94 first-year engineering students enrolled in an introductory physics course at a large, private university into two groups. The experimental group learned vectors through a VR simulation and the control group learned vectors with a conventional lecture-based approach. The VR group navigated a virtual environment specifically designed to visualize vector concepts using PC-powered VR equipment with each headset having two controllers. This immersive setup allowed students to directly interact with vectors, manipulating their magnitude and direction.  


Researchers noted that the introductory physics course was chosen for this experiment as the goal of this course is for students to develop the ability to apply mathematical concepts, tools and models in their professional lives. This involves the ability to visualize angles and manipulations. Students in this course met in-person for three hours per week for 16 weeks.   


Student’s performance in the physics course was obtained with a pre- and post-course questionnaire. Additionally, the experimental group was surveyed about their perception of VR regarding their learning goals, their experience using VR, their opinion of VR as an educational tool, and the value of VR in education. 

 

The results were promising. While students in both groups benefited from active learning strategies, students in the experimental group had greater improvement in visualizing the relationship between vectors, components and angles. This shows Virtual Reality helped students grasp the underlying concepts of vectors, necessary for practical application in their professional careers. 

 

Additionally, the secondary survey given to the experimental group showed over 90% of students agreed VR helped them learn and understand three-dimensional vectors, visualize metamathematical problems involving vectors, and understand the location and meaning of angles. Students in this group also agreed time spent in VR was valuable and said they would recommend VR to a peer struggling in this course. Over 80% of students said they would search for courses with VR-support in the future and more than 75% said they would attend VR sessions even if they did not count towards their grade.  


Seen throughout the study, Virtual Reality has a positive effect on students’ learning outcomes, and VR is particularly useful when applying concepts to real-world scenarios. More interesting however are the students’ opinions of VR as a learning tool. With student absenteeism on the rise, over 75% of surveyed students said they would attend ungraded VR sessions simply because they were beneficial to their learning goals. This dedication to learning is more important to advancing in STEM education and careers than any test could ever be. STEM teachers should leverage the power of VR in their classrooms to encourage students to pursue their STEM passions, revolutionizing the STEM fields. 


 

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